“Thus they shed innocent blood on every side of the sanctuary, and defiled it. . . . [Jerusalem’s] sanctuary was laid waste like a wilderness, her feasts were turned into mourning, her Sabbaths into reproach, her honor into contempt.” So reads the opening chapter of the first book of Maccabees in its description of the Seleucid persecutions. The image of blood in a place of Jewish worship struck a chord with Danny Schiff, who serves as a rabbi in Pittsburgh, leading him to reflect on the meaning of Hanukkah:
At a time when the sanctuary was desecrated, and the people pitilessly put to the sword, there were two Jewish responses. One response was, essentially, that the time had come for Jews to blend into the surrounding culture because carrying the message of the Jewish people was too painful: “Let us go, they said, and make a covenant with the heathen that are round about us: for since we departed from them, we have had much sorrow” (1Maccabees 1:11).
The other response was the exact opposite. We will never stop being Jews, declared the second group, and we will never let anybody define our Judaism for us, or cause us to retreat one iota from our ideals. Come what may, we will carry Judaism forward on the Torah’s terms, and we will overcome those who would seek to oppose us or those who might propose to give up. They were the Maccabees, and we are their heirs.
The word ḥanukkah means “dedication” or “rededication,” and it recalls two pivotal affirmations. On the physical level, it refers to the fact that on the 25th of Kislev, [the date on the Hebrew calendar on which the Seleucids were defeated and Hanukkah begins], the Maccabees confronted a shattered, ransacked sanctuary and they immediately rededicated the building to the service of God. But, perhaps even more significantly, the Maccabees responded to the reality of violent attack by rededicating themselves to Judaism. . . .
Through the centuries, we have celebrated Hanukkah, despite its tragic origins, because the Maccabees showed us how to rededicate ourselves to Jewish practice, and how to spread the light of Judaism further in even the darkest night.